Home > Europe > France > My life in Provence, by Naoko, a Japanese expat in France

Naoko is Japanese and lives in Provence. She tells us her impressions about her life in Provence.

We arrived in France in summer 2006 with mixed feeling of anxiety and excitement, as we had 3 young children (1, 5 and 8) and none of us understood any French.

My husband and I had lived in Europe (England and Austria) before, but that was before the children were born, so things were much simpler.

Our three children did not quite understand that going to live in France for 5 years was not the same as going there on holiday. They were simply excited about getting on the airplanes for the first time in their lives and “visiting” the big two-story house (not a small apartment like ours in Tokyo!) their father was renting in the countryside in Provence.

My husband was also happy, finally to be able to bring his family with him to Provence.

I was the only one who felt very nervous. Our youngest child had had a severe convulsion and was hospitalized a few months before. What if he had another attack in the airplane or in a small town where we would have communication difficulties???… That was why I hesitated to accompany my husband for the last 5 months. If I would remain in Tokyo with the children, I would have enough helping hands from grand parents and hospitals are nearby. But children missed their father terribly and were often in tears at night. Finally I made up my mind to follow him, as I thought the time children need their parents desperately does not last very long.

Thanks to my husband, we arrived in a house already furnished, well equipped and with a well stocked fridge. The only inconvenience is that I need a car (or a horse?) to go and buy bread or milk, as our house stands in the middle of the forest without public transportation to get to the closest grocery store. For one month, we had only one car, which my husband drove to his work, so we felt like prisoners in the forest. It was a big change for our family to live in such a countryside. But soon the children started to love this isolated place, as they have plenty of space to ride bicycles or to make their hiding places.

In the early autumn, when the children started their school and I was alone with the smallest one, the only sound I could hear was the leaves rattling in the wind and acorns falling to the ground. It is so peaceful here in this area and that helps to ease my stress. It is about 10 km away from the school and supermarkets, so I have to drive 40 -50 km every day. I find it a pity for the environment that in France public transportation is very poor, so people have to drive their own car, at the FRENCH SPEED. I am very much convinced that for many French people driving is a sport, so they love driving as fast as they can and overtake vehicles driving exactly at the expected speed. Thus, walking, jogging or cycling on the road is almost a suicidal action. I always drive to a big park, half an hour away from home, for my regular jogging.

Before moving to France, we read many guide books about France, so we thought we came with good knowledge of this society. But there were certain things no guide book informed us: shops close for lunch during 2 or 3 hours, and so do they on Sundays and Mondays. The shop closing time is when the shop is set with security alarm and the assistants leave for home, so the last admission for shoppers would be half an hour before the closing time.

There were several things which I found to be very upsetting: in Provence, people are very relaxed, easy-going and friendly. But when it comes down to promises they make, they often find enough excuses for not keeping what they promised. Plumbers, gardeners or electricians never appear at the promised time or day. France Telecom gives information which is not based on reality. Ordered goods never arrive at the expected date. No one seems to feel responsible for the delay or incorrect information given to clients. It took me a long time to learn that I should always double or triple check when I want to be sure of any information given to me.

Now we are in our second year in Provence. Our life has gradually become comfortable and more enjoyable; it seems as if it was a long time ago that our children cried every morning and after school, as they could not understand any word in French and could not play with other children, could not understand what teachers asked them to do. With private French lessons after school and during school holidays, they have been making great progress in the language. Now they speak fluent French with Provencal accent! Since last winter, they are taking music lessons (guitar and flute), became members of a local chess club and a ski club. They also went on summer camps organized by the town. All these activities became available to them only when they started understanding the language well.

When my smallest one started going to a nursery school last September, I began taking French and violin lessons. I was a complete beginner in both of them but I always enjoy doing something new. I also do an English-Japanese exchange lessons with a friend. When I was in Austria without children, I spent my free time and energy at learning German and going to the opera and concerts. Without children, I had no worries for education, no need for a doctor.

Now with children, I only have 2 hours in the morning and another 2 hours in the afternoon to be alone. In a French school, children come back home for lunch. Within such limited free time, I have to do my French and English homeworks, prepare for Japanese lessons, practice violin and of course there is an endless domestic work to keep me busy.

When children come back home at 16.30 p.m., my real hectic hours begin: children need help with their homeworks in French and music, and they have to be supervised when they study Japanese with their work books. When they finish their homework, they take a bath with Japanese bath salts (Onsen no moto) and have Japanese meal. It would save my time to cook in a European way, but children want to eat Japanese meals and there is no Japanese restaurant nearby, so I have no other options… But during the weekends, we enjoy French cuisine. Our consumption of cheese and wine is gradually and steadily increasing, so are our weights!

It is not very easy to teach them Japanese at home, as they also have to spend long hours for their homework from the school. But knowing that we have to go home in the near future, they have to keep their Japanese education as well. Especially now when they tend to speak to each other in French, I have to ask them to speak Japanese at home and French at school, in order to avoid the risk of them becoming semi-lingual.

It is hard to say since when, but we all started feeling very much at home in France.

We have seen and experienced both positive and negative sides of this society. In Japan, service was always perfect, toilets were clean, and generally speaking people were responsible for their words.

Here in France, people have a very positive attitude; they see the bright side of things, give credit to what they have succeeded, rather than criticizing what they have failed to succeed. You don’t need to be perfect, you can be yourself, you don’t need to compare yourself with others, but just show respect to others with different abilities. Some people say that Provencal people are friendly, but superficial. But it is better than being unfriendly. Here people are relaxed but have patience as well and they take enough time to listen to foreigners struggling to say something in their poor French and to try to understand them.

Children are often invited to their classmates’ birthday parties, parents are invited for aperitif. I also enjoy hosting coffee afternoons for mothers at school, or inviting family friends and neighbors for Japanese dinner. This way, we have made many friends and we have always felt welcomed in this land.

Only 18 months ago, I could not imagine ourselves living happily in Provence, but now it is hard to imagine how we will adjust our lives again into Japanese style; the father working till midnight and who never sees his children when they are awake, children spending most of their time at schools and “Juku” (cram schools), without much free time activities. We have to make the best of our stay in France, especially the family time with our young children.

February 2008
Edited by Valeriexpat

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